Stand up, speak out and take control

Yesterday I had occasion to go to the local Barnes & Noble. I’ll admit, I don’t go there often. These days, when I do it is because I’m meeting someone there. Part of the reason is the decline in customer service. Part of it is the continuing decrease in the number of books in the store. Part is simply visual. When I walk into a bookstore, it is nice to be able to tell it’s a bookstore without having to walk into the back half to find a book.

After a successful meeting, and there will be an announcement about that later this week, I wandered the store with a friend. Part of it was habit. I’m in a bookstore. I love books. I had a few bucks in my pocket. So why not see if there’s a book I want to buy?

But the other part was curiosity. So many author friends have been dropped by their publishers or have had series killed because “they just didn’t connect with the readers”. Well, there’s one way to judge the veracity of that comment and that is to see if the book(s) is still on the shelf. So imagine my surprise — not! — to find the books for almost every one of the authors I was looking for still on the shelf. Gee, does that mean these authors are popular in Hurst, TX or were the publishers shoveling so much horse excrement? Considering how bookstores, and we are talking the large chain bookstores, order their books, it is a very safe bet that the answer is the latter option.

The big box stores have gone to stocking based on numbers across large regions and, as is too often the case, national numbers. Stores are told when to pull books from their shelves, not from a regional manager but from national. The standard shelf life for a novel can be measured in weeks and months, especially if that novel isn’t on the NYT’s best seller list. So, to find books that have been out for several years still on the shelves — and yet to know that the series has been dropped by the publisher because the publisher says they didn’t sell — means either the publishers are completely incompetent, which is possible, or they are crooks, which is also possible.

I’ll give you one example because I did facebook about it last night. Yes, I was a bit snarky about it, but not nearly as snarky as I wanted to be. Part of me wanted to call out the editor involved by name but, well, Sarah is a nicer person than I am and suggested that I might want to think about it some. Well, I have and I still want to call that editor out. After I have another cup of coffee, I may.

Any way, the series in question that I found on the shelves without any problem was Sarah’s Refinishing Mysteries. Dipped, Stripped and Dead was published in October 2009. There hasn’t been a time since then when I haven’t been able to walk into Barnes & Noble — and even Borders before it went under — and not find DSD. Yesterday was no different. Here’s a book that has been out for two and a half years still on the shelves. And not in the sales area. Oh no, it was in the main stacks and selling at full price.

Oh yeah, these aren’t the same books that had been there months ago because they weren’t signed. Sarah, when she was here in September, went to the BN and signed the copies in stock. These weren’t signed. So the publisher can’t say the books aren’t moving.

But there’s more. The second book in the series, French Polished Murder, was also on the shelves. FPM was published in May 2010. So, it has been out two years and is still on the shelves.

And yet, the series didn’t connect with the reader.

Sorry, Berkley (which is a division of Penguin, one of the Big Six), I just don’t buy it. This is either a case of the publisher robbing Peter to pay Paul — in other words, using monies earned by mid-list authors to support the monies they have paid out to best sellers as much too inflated advances which results in the publisher having to drop the mid-lister and hope that author doesn’t ask for an accounting — or it is a case of a particular editor thinking she could kill Sarah’s career by dropping the series. My personal belief is that it was a bit of both.

Part of me, on finding the books, could only shake my head. After all, the kind of incompetence the find represented amazes me. If a book is selling, you don’t cut the author loose. You especially don’t do it if that author is making you money and you are a publisher in trouble. And Penguin is. Remember, Penguin was not only one of the five publishers named, along with Apple, in the Department of Justice’s price fixing suit, but Penguin is one of only two publishers not to settle with the DoJ. Penguin also faces litigation filed by a number of states’ attorneys general.

Another part of me was angry. Not so much for Sarah and her fans because I know the series will continue through other channels, but for those authors who find themselves in the same boat as she is with this series but who don’t understand they have options.

Then the fury set in. This publisher is still making money on Sarah’s books, and on books by the other authors they have cut off just as they did Sarah, and yet telling these same authors there are no sales or minimal sales. If challenged, they blithely claim they made the decision based on the Bookscan figures. OMG, give me a break. Folks, if you haven’t figured it out yet, those figures are inaccurate not to a single decimal point but into double digits. They do NOT track every sale from every physical bookstore, nor do they track sales from every online outlet. But publishers are willing to pay for their reports because these lower figures work to the publishers’ benefit.

Then there are the onerous contractual terms these same publishers are trying to force on their authors and, all too often, do. Look, you will find authors telling you you can strike out those terms you don’t like or negotiate limits on them. Guess what, boys and girls, that only works if you are one of the publisher’s darlings or a best seller. If you are the work horse for the house, it ain’t gonna happen. Instead, you will be giving them right of first refusal, your right to publish with any other house under your name (not all publishers require this yet but more are going to it), ALL digital rights and other rights, even for technologies not yet invented, etc., etc., etc. And what do you get for this? Minimal payment.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if you are a writer, it is time to grow a backbone. Review your royalty statements. If you have been cut loose by your publisher and you think the statements are as much a work of fiction as your books, then demand an accounting. Gone are the days when questioning your publisher meant you could and would be blackballed by the industry. If you are offered a contract by a legacy publisher PLEASE take it to an IP attorney with publishing experience and have him vet the contract before you sign it. If you have been cut loose by a publisher mid-series, take your contract to an IP attorney and see if you can continue the series on your own. If you can, and if you think the series was selling, then by all means continue it. You have built-in fans already.

If you are a self-published author who suddenly finds himself offered a contract by a legacy publisher, consider your options carefully. Think about those golden children of self-publishing who signed with the big name publishers and who have seemed to disappear into obscurity.

If you are a publisher, get your head out of your butt. Seriously. Or quit gazing in rapture at the lint in your navel. Your ivory towers are tarnished and in need of repair. If you continue to abuse your authors and readers as you have been, you will fail. When that happens, you will find few mourners because you will have alienated much of your “family” and “friends”.

Remember, there are options out there that have nothing to do with the Big Six publishers, options that include small presses that know how to treat their authors all the way to self-publishing.

Perhaps, considering the state of the industry and the terms legacy publishers are demanding from authors, the creators, it is time to call for a strike. I don’t know, but I am moving closer to doing just that. There is a reason why Kate classifies editors for the big houses as minor demons in her ConVent books. There would be no publishers without authors and yet the legacy houses treat us like we are the lowest rung on the ladder. Not only to they not value our work the way they should, they also seem to think we don’t have the capacity to think and reason and question. To a large part, that is because we have allowed them to think that. Worse, too many of us have started thinking that way ourselves. That has to stop.

So, here and now, I am asking each of you to read your contracts and have IP attorneys look them over. If your agent seems more worried about keeping their relationship with editors and publishers than in looking after your best interests, reconsider just who that agent is serving. If your publisher cuts you loose, don’t be afraid to demand your rights and your contract gives you the right to a full accounting. In short, it is time for writers to take control of their careers again. The tools are there. All we have to do is use them.

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